I met with Art Menius through that portal we call Zoom, traveling to his porch in the vicinity of Durham, North Carolina. He leaned comfortably in a weathered black rocking chair with a backdrop of white plank siding; sheers across the window hinted at a gentle breeze. I felt drawn to Art’s easy demeanor all the way from my cottage in Virginia, like I could sit on that stoop and listen all afternoon.
Multi-instrumentalist and covert folk activist Joel Tepp explains Art’s legacy well:
“Art Menius has one foot planted firmly on the foundational past of the folk tradition as the other one swings into the future and the great possibilities of tomorrow. He’s been a leader in many ways for decades.”
I’d come looking for an experienced opinion on how modern technology affects a tradition born of penniless hard work. The spirit of the conversation was hospitable as a Southern stereotype – two neighbors on a front porch. I wish I could tell you we had lemonade or mint Juleps, or barbecue.
I got what I wanted.
AM: Trying to look at folk music as something as narrow as a musical genre or a radio format is really misleading, because we’re a broad, diverse ecosystem, a complete community: agents, managers, record companies, artists, music lovers; house concert presenters who aren’t in it for the money at all; the recording engineers, the music publishers…we are a community, and to me it’s always been about being part of this big tribe of people who are not drawn to one narrow genre of music but are drawn because of the breadth and because the people just seem to share certain values. I hate to in any way mimic Jason Aldean, but it is a certain kind of the best of small town values. Seeing people as individuals, accepting their diversity, accepting peculiarity; in fact it’s almost a granular level of acceptance of people as they come.
me: You used “ecosystem.” I really like that. And acceptance is what’s really sucked me into the folk scene. I’ve always listened to folk; I’ve got a definite bluegrass side in opposition to my punk/metal side, but throughout Pandemic I got involved with people who were gathering online to watch live streams, talking amongst each other because we missed the communion. And there’s an example right there of how technology has benefitted the folk ecosystem. When I was involved in music business – in the ’80s – we would hand out cassette tapes. You take a cassette tape to the radio station; you give cassette tapes to the guy who works at the record store. What do we do now instead of that? Cassettes are a novelty now.
AM: Streaming links. Within the business, usually SoundCloud links is how you share anything. I’ve done a lot of sharing of video, too. I’ve found SoundCloud a lot more convenient ’cause I’m generally listening in the car, listening while working. Something that I have to watch as well as listen, then that’s taking up all of me. I don’t have all of me to give up to one task most of the time, unless I’m listening to a potential client’s work.
me: so email, most of the time?
AM: For streaming previews, yeah, I email a link to SoundCloud. When I’m promoting a record, and I’m sending out my Tuesday New Release eblast to DJs, then they’re gonna get a link to the .wav or .mp3 with all the assets: the lyrics, the cover art, the liner notes, the one-sheet, the song descriptions; and there’s a link to get the music from Airplay Direct, which is a service for DJs, and there’s a link to preview it on SoundCloud. Those links are in all my releases.
me: You mentioned using technology to preserve culture.
AM: Any time that there’s new technology, there’s a tremendous opportunity for those who love traditional culture, even for culture based in those traditions, because the people who adapt early to successful technology get a reach they wouldn’t get otherwise. That’s why getting folk music on CD early…the first CD of folk music I ever saw was a John Hartford compilation on Flying Fish Records. They came in those big cardboard boxes that were three times the size of the CD. You never knew what to do with them afterwards ’cause they were kind of attractive, but like they’re an empty box now…I don’t have unlimited space so I put ’em through this hole in the attic. I’ll deal with them some other year!
me: and space is something…with new technology, one thing I’m hyperaware of unused space. I do typesetting for Igneus Press. And my cowriter and I are always talking about zeroes and ones, and how the empty space is never really empty. That empty space, it has a purpose, it has a meaning; if it was nothing, it wouldn’t be there. I’m expecting a trend – soon – of people being aware of and not leaving extra “blank spaces.” That’s gonna end up costing money in the digital world.
AM: Do you do actual physical typesetting?
me: I wish. No, there is a guy associated with the Press who did the physical typesetting and I believe he still does…because I was asking for a copy of an out-of-print book and he said, “I’ll print you one.” And it came in the mail, pages stapled together. And that comes back around to folk, too: these old-school formats have a new value now. They’re not put up on a shelf by any means, like they’re even folker than they used to be. Vinyl has not gone out of rotation.
AM: Of course now the CD is making a comeback because the touring bands can’t get the vinyl pressed in time for their tours, so they have CDs to sell to their fans.
me: I know some people say, “Nobody buys CDs anymore.” But we’re all old guys! We need CDs to play in our cars! Everybody doesn’t have Sirius XM yet.
AM:…and a little uptick even with young people who are like, “Wow…these CD things are only like $15 and an album’s $30. So maybe I’ll just get this CD.”
me: and the .mp3 has a different purpose; for me it goes in the house, on the PC; you can put it on a thumb drive. And cassettes – I’ve noticed a lot of artists are making them as a novelty.
AM: yeah, there’s a cassette-only label over in Durham. It’s niche and novel, and doesn’t have much to do with me getting the music on radio. And folk radio still about full albums on CD.
me: Hey, how many songs are on an album?
AM: Consensus seems to be you need to have at least 8 for any radio station to consider it an album and get it around to those stations that only play full albums.
me: Alright, good to hear. Because that’s been another one of my contentions. Recording studios are telling the artists “everybody” only puts 6-9 songs, which is basically an EP. What’s the reasoning? That’s not enough time for me to clean my house.
AM: Folk radio is still definitely about full albums on compact disc. DJs won’t play anything but that, with of course the Big Star Exception. One thing studio engineers know nothing about is radio, and I find that a lot of their advice to artists is wrong where it concerns radio. The graphic design people will go entirely for looks as if it were for sale in a retail store, and leave out information DJs need: like the duration of a song, which cut’s number one, and which cut’s number two; I can’t go hunting around, putting things into CD drawers to see how long the songs are. We just don’t have that amount of time, especially since the majority of DJs are volunteers, trying to squeeze a radio show into a week when they’re also trying to make a living and take care of elderly parents…
me: that’s another integral part of folk, that you’re doing it on the side, so to speak, and it feels disparaging to say it like that. But it’s not your #1 thing because you’re trying to live at the same time. Labor of love, I guess, would be the nice way to put it.
AM: Even for those of us lucky enough to do this full-time and do alright at it, it’s not what we would have done if we were just going after money because we could have made a lot more money a lot more efficiently.
me: So if it’s not for money, why are you doing it?
AM: I’m doing it to be part of this community. It’s the business of folk music that I fell in love with on day 1, way more than the music. “I really like these crazy people. Maybe they’ll accept me being crazy, too.” Still, much change; it’s been radical, sometimes painful change in these 40 years. Still a lot of the communal value. It’s still there; still feels like a pretty small community.
me: Let’s hit technology one more time: do you have anything to say about connecting with the cell phone gang? People who use cell phones for everything they do. They’re still Folk, right?
AM: Social media is an important part of the community; especially post-pandemic, if indeed we are post. It’s become an important part of the glue, just like e-mail. We were a community that adapted to email pretty quickly. The first little email group I was in 30-some years ago was a folk music group, a little world off to its own where we could only email each other! Just like things were in the beginning. If you weren’t a part of a university or big corporate – at that point, a Fortune 50 structure – how do you get on the internet? It wasn’t ubiquitous, and it wasn’t as convenient as having a phone to hold in our hand. We can now reach all sorts of stuff: Instagram, Facebook…we just adapt to the technology, gobble it up, and keep on moving forward in our own wonderful way. We’re an incredibly inventive tribe. Old ways aren’t going away. I keep discovering new folk radio shows every week, more than the ones that are going away.
I think the values are deeply in dealing with folks one-on-one, with valuing personal relationships, with considering something more than a bottom line.
me: I like what you said: we are inventive. I keep saying that folk – music, arts, dancing – has generated bottom-up. They weren’t doing it for money in the first place. You’d make your own instruments, like jug bands…the inventive mind will find what it needs to if you have a very little resources. If you do have resources and have an inventive mind, you’re still gonna go looking for something different. What’s the folk personality? Folk kind of draws a type together, I think.
AM: It does…the perfect Folk personality is almost intense and laid back at the same time.
me: That’s a really good way to put it!
Please enjoy this live interview on YouTube (FAR-West presents Radio Promoter Art Menius in conversation with musicologist Joel Tepp):
Porch Sittin’ With Art Menius
In Which We Discuss Folk Radio and Technology, and Peruse the Folk Personality